By Danni Levy
Photography by Per Bernal
Bright-eyed, vibrant, and a whole lot of fun! Hollywood veteran Russell Hornsby looks every inch the troublesome teen in his high school letterman jacket.
We sat down with the legend himself for an insight into what it’s like playing Don King, working with 50 Cent, and keeping the theatrical vibe alive.
“That’s my actual high school letterman jacket,” says Russell as we point out how awesome he looks in our exclusive snaps.
“When I was a kid, my mother would always take my brother and me to the high school basketball and football games. I always remembered seeing these guys who were like 10 to 15 years my senior wearing letterman jackets with incredible murals on the back.
“I told myself, ‘When I get to high school, I will get a letterman jacket.’ I went to an artist friend, I told him what I wanted, and I said, ‘I want to be like a superhero.’
When I played soccer, my nickname was ‘the soul train’ because I was always running so fast and I would sing and stuff like that. It cost me $500 at that time to get the jacket done, so it’s worth an awful lot now. I’ve had it ever since, and I travel everywhere with that jacket. Took it with me to college at every stop.
“People say, ‘Oh, that’s so cool; where did you get that jacket?’ I tell them, ‘It’s mine, I bought it, it’s my high school letterman jacket. And it still fits beautifully.”
Having been cast as notorious boxing promoter Don King in the highly anticipated series Iron Mike, Russell says he was able to identify with the character after initially being surprised at having been chosen for the role.
“It’s funny if someone asked you who you’d see playing Don King, they almost definitely wouldn’t picture me,” he says. “It was interesting when they said my name was up for it. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s odd.’ I hadn’t pictured myself in that role. I started looking at YouTube videos, and I said, ‘Oh, no, I got some of that in me.’ And so when I told a couple of friends that I was doing it, they were like, ‘Yo, that’s perfect.’ What I got an opportunity to do is really show a different side of my personality, a different side of who I am artistically, that people haven’t seen. It’s great for me to be able to show the true chameleon that I believe I can be.
“I was told by one of my mentors that there are very few true chameleons in acting. When you look at Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeffrey Wright, Meryl Streep, or Joaquin Phoenix, they’re true chameleons. I don’t think they have to identify necessarily, because they can really transform. But for the majority of actors, we need to have some portal into the character. Whether that be a vocal quality, a laugh, or a gesture, there’s usually something that connects us personally to the role.
“It’s funny if someone asked you who you’d see playing Don King, they almost definitely wouldn’t picture me.”
“There are very few people who can just say, ‘Ah, showtime.’ They just find it. Heath Ledger was one of those people too. He was a true chameleon, whereby you lost the real him in character. For me, there was something in Don that I could hold onto and say, ‘Ah, that’s where I got that, okay.’
“I was fortunate to tap into the intimate moments of Don, the Don that people haven’t seen on screen before. I think that’s what makes it such a special opportunity for me. I got a chance to imagine what Don is like in the quiet, subtle, and small moments. And then, you get to see this contrasting bigness that I think will cause people to lean in.”
Switching between roles is a piece of cake for Russell thanks to his background in live theater.
“Having trained in the theater, I’m used to working on two or three roles at a time,” he says. “For stage, you’ll often be preparing for one role, rehearsing the next, and performing another. Coming from that background, I’m used to having two or three roles in my spirit at once. You learn to compartmentalize. Meditation is also very key, finding that solitude to be able to go quiet and find out where you are as an individual first, and then figure out where you are concerning the next character you have to play.
“When you look at Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeffrey Wright, Meryl Streep, or Joaquin Phoenix, they’re true chameleons.”
“When you’re rehearsing the character, you get the chance to place it inside your body and find a quiet place where it can lie dormant. So the character hides. When rehearsal’s over, the character has to go into hiding and you have to go on with your life. When you go back to rehearsal, or you go to perform, the character re-emerges and says, ‘Hey, I’m ready.’ I think that’s the schizophrenic nature of an actor at times.
“As you get older, you better understand who you are. It’s almost as if the character says, ‘Oh, you put this clothing on, or you put this makeup on, I’m ready for you.’ But day-to-day, I can enjoy time with my wife and kids and hide that person away deep inside me.
“There’s a saying, ‘We wear the mask that grins and lies.’ When you socialize with friends, you’re different from when you’re working with colleagues; when you’re with close family, you play yet another role. As Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all of us are merely players.’ We all have our entries and exits, and every one of us plays many different roles during our time on earth.”
Russell says his happiest years were spent on stage. “As you get older, you better understand who you are. It’s almost as if the character says, ‘Oh, you put this clothing on, or you put this makeup on, I’m ready for you”
“I think the most joyous time as an actor for me has been on stage. It’s partly due to the live element, but I think it’s also owing to the time you get to find and create the character. You get anywhere from a month to three months to dive into it. That’s when acting for me was at its purest form because you weren’t getting paid much; you were there because it’s what you loved to do.
“We’re at the point where you get a role, and people start saying, ‘He could get nominated for this, she could get nominated for that.’ We put the cart before the horse to a certain degree. We pre-market a casting without even seeing the work. I think that takes away from the joy of it at times because it becomes more pressure sometimes than it’s worth.”
Having been recommissioned for a second series, Russell enjoys working on Starz hit drama series BMF under executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
“As Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all of us are merely players.’ We all have our entries and exits, and every one of us during their time on earth plays many different roles.”
“What I respect about 50 is that he’s the kind of producer who says, ‘I’m hiring you to give me your best; I’m hiring you because I trust and believe in your talent and your work,’” he says. “When you do well, in his mind, 50 says, ‘That’s what I expected of you.’ That takes a lot of pressure off me because I’m ready to go kill it.”
Boasting his best body yet, Russell attributes his physique to a solid upbringing, followed by unending support from his wife.
“My mother had my brother, and I was involved in many sports,” he says. “I didn’t eat a lot of sugar or junk food growing up because my mother always made us fresh, healthy meals. So I always knew how to take care of myself. I always knew how to eat right.
“What I respect about 50 is that he’s the kind of producer who says, ‘I’m hiring you to give me your best; I’m hiring you because I trust and believe in your talent and your work’”
“When I turned 40, I ruptured my Achilles during filming and got a trainer. When I met my trainer, I was 227 pounds. I was thick, and I was carrying too much weight. I was working out, but my trainer said, ‘Listen, I can get you to 208, and you’re going to look fantastic, and you won’t look like you’ve lost a lot of weight at all, you’ll keep your muscle tone.’ He told me I had great genetics, and I was like, ‘Okay.’ So, I started to work out with my trainer three times a week. He put me on nice quality food, clean meats, and drinking plenty of water, and I reached my goal. I saw the change. And when I saw the change, my wife and I went shopping for clothes. I’d never worn fitted pants before. I used to wear baggy jeans. So we’re buying fitted pants. And I told my wife, ‘I might need to buy a size up just in case I gain the weight back.’ My wife said, ‘You’re not going to gain the weight back; it won’t happen.’ My wife stepped into my trainer’s shoes. She would say, ‘Hey, it’s time to get up and go to the gym.’ I’d say, ‘Why?’ And she’d say, ‘You have to stay NBC sexy.’ Whatever job I’m working on, I have to stay sexy now. ‘You got to stay sexy,’ she says. It’s ingrained into my psyche. I started committing to it. The biggest changes I made in my life that have helped me stay on track are drinking plenty of water, at least a gallon a day, and intermittent fasting.
“I skip breakfast. My eating window is 10 am to 6 pm. I work out early in the morning, five or six times weekly. This morning, I worked out at 5 am. I get up at 4:15 every day, then go to the gym, work out for an hour, go home and help get the kids ready. Then I do my bullet-proof coffee at around 9 am. I have my first meal at eleven. Then I’ll do dinner by five, six o’clock, and then I’m done.
“I fast completely once or twice a month on water or juice for a day or two. I’ve incorporated a lot of psyllium husk in my fiber diet to keep everything clear. I credit my skin to my daily infrared saunas. I’m religious about them; they’ve changed my life. I bought a portable one, so I carry it everywhere I go.
“When I was working in Chicago, I would get up at 3:30 to work out before I had to be on set. I have to get a workout in; I have to. The only day I take off is Sunday. That’s like the day of rest for everything. I can’t go a whole week and not work out. The longest I’ve ever been able to go without working out is maybe three days.” Russell prides himself on nurturing the youth coming up the ranks and enjoys
mentoring younger actors on-set.
“When I was living in Oregon doing the show ‘Grimm’, I was doing theater every Saturday with young kids,” he says. “I’d love to set up a formal coaching school. I’m trying to figure out what my message is. Because I feel like I’m a throwback, and so I know that I’m not for everybody, and I don’t want to temper that message to make it so that it’s one-size-fits-all. It’s like; I’m Yoda looking for Jedi Knights. So if you’re not Luke or his apprentice, if you’re not ready to become the knight in Jedi training, don’t come fuck with me. Because I only want young Jedi Knights.
“I do get depressed. I do have pain. I do cry. I do get mad, but that’s for me. nobody gives a shit about your pain.”
“There’s a lot of talent out here, a lot. But I think it’s misguided. Many of these kids need guidance, but they’re not getting that because they think they know it all. We don’t talk to our kids with the same level of authority that we used to, and kids are a little wayward. It’s just like, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. You’re a kid; I’m a parent. I’m paying all the fucking bills. It’s no.’”
Despite having trodden every tile we can imagine, Russell says he still hasn’t covered all bases when tapping into his versatility as an actor.
“Honestly, I would like to play the unassuming villain,” says Russell. “The every-man villain that traverses through the world and can assume many roles. I’d be on a grounded level in some parts, but there would be moments when the character would be theatrical because I am theatrical. I’m ready to play the villain. I’ve always played the good guy and the guy who’s smiling, nice, and gentle. I want to experiment with my darker side.”
Having worked on numerous real-life and fictitious characters, Russell enjoys portraying both.
“I think there’s more pressure when you’re playing somebody real, who’s living or who has lived,” he says. “But in fact, all of my characters are based on somebody real in a sense. I’ve seen and met so many different people, and I have a mental and written filing cabinet of people’s traits and behavioral patterns and speech patterns. And so, I go, ‘oh, this reminds me of the guy from the park bench who was talking to the pigeon and kept uttering the same word over… oh, yeah.’ I’m going to pull that. I closely observe people all the time. And so, everybody I play for me is real to an extent.
“Now that I’m older, I put less pressure on myself because I feel that, as long as I’m honest to the integrity of the man, and I’m honoring the man, and I commit, that’s all I can ask for because the truth is that I am not Don. I’m an actor portraying somebody.”
Russell loves to tap into the spirit of those he meets in real life and those whose shoes he steps into on set.
“I’m a true lover of people, honestly,” he says. “I need to engage. If I’m on the road, I’ll go out to dinner by myself, or I’ll go to a bar by myself, hear somebody having a little conversation, and insert myself. I’ll say something, and they’ll go, ‘Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.’ I go, ‘Yeah, because this, that’… and the next thing you know, they’re going, ‘Yeah, man, you see honey, you see this, he understands.’ And suddenly, you’re having this full-on conversation with a group of strangers. I love that. I love engaging people. Let’s find a reason to smile. Let’s find a reason to laugh. You can find joy in everything.
“I learned to stop lying to myself. If you’re practicing good eating habits like you say you do, then you should be able to eat anything you want every time you go out to dinner with friends.”
“It’s who I am. It’s like it’s my job to give people joy. For 25 years, I have made a living doing what I love. I have no complaints. None. Even when the work is bad or the conditions suck, I still do what I love and make a great living at it. And yes, there are times when it’s not as good as others or I feel down or I’m tired, but I can always find the silver lining. And even when I’m away from my kids for a month or so, I’m doing what I love. I’m providing them with a great life. I’m bringing a smile to my kid’s faces.
“I’m not Mr. Smiley all the time. Don’t get it twisted at all. But nobody cares. Nobody wants to see that. It’s incumbent upon me to find my moment of silence or peace, yell, scream, laugh, cry, get mad, be depressed, maybe call a friend and then move on with my life. Because as long as I have my health and a means to provide, there’s nothing else. At 47 years old, it’s gotten that simple for me because I see other people who don’t have opportunities and don’t have what I have.
“As a black person growing up in this society, seeing many of my sisters and brethren without, I’m saying ‘No, no, no, I’m going to try. I’m going to bring joy inside their tears.’ And again, I do get depressed. I do have pain. I do cry. I do get mad, but that’s for me. As it was said to me by one of my mentors, nobody gives a shit about your pain. We say we do, but we don’t. So, it’s our job as individuals to deal with it as best we can. And then, come out the other side grateful, gracious, with a smile on our faces, ready to seize the day and give some joy to others.
“Nobody cares when you say, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to take today off as a self-care day. I’m just going to relax.’ People say, ‘Oh my God, you’re so lazy. You don’t want to work. You’re just going to take a day off and relax; oh my gosh, it must be nice to be you.’ But the moment you get sick, what do people say? ‘You work too hard. That’s why you’re sick; why don’t you take a break?’
But they’re a day late and a dollar short.
“Nobody cares when you take a break. You don’t have to make a proclamation. Just do it. And then you’re healthy, and you keep illness away. That’s what people appreciate. I stay employed because I can show up to work with a positive attitude at every turn.”
“I told my wife, ‘I might need to buy a size up just in case I gain the weight back.’ My wife said, ‘You’re not going to gain the weight back; it won’t happen.”
It’s reassuring to learn Russell does have flaws, well, just one or two…
“I love red wine, copious amounts,” he says. “And I like chicken wings and pastries. After our shoot, I went to Wing-stop and devoured 20 chicken wings. I learned to stop lying to myself. If you’re practicing good eating habits like you say you do, then you should be able to eat anything you want every time you go out to dinner with friends. I found that the people who say they can’t eat when they go out to dinner are the ones who lie to themselves.
“I’m saying to myself, ‘What the fuck have you been doing all week? We made this deal; we made this reservation on Monday; you could have fasted all week, so that come Friday, you can go out with your friends, eat, drink, and be merry.’ I used to lie to myself when I wasn’t on my diet or practicing the right eating habits. What you do in the dark will come to light. So, if you’re eating right in the dark when you’re alone, if you’re working out at 4 am when it’s dark outside, then when it’s Friday night, you can say, ‘I’m going to have some wine, I’m going to eat some steak, I mean, I want some dessert too.’ Because the next morning, you’re going to wake up, you’re going to go to the gym, and you’re going to go steam it out.”
“BMF” airs on Starz globally. Russell also stars on Netflix’s “Lost in Space,” out December 1st, 2021. Up next, he will play Don King in Hulu’s “Iron Mike.”
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